It was humid and the noise from the stands was deafening. People were shouting, cursing, cheering the fighters on as they kicked and punched each other to bloody, sweaty pulps. Sitting at the expensive ringside “VIP seats”, I felt like a tourist. The real action was in the cheap seats.
I remember Ian Wright saying this once during his show, “If you are wondering where everyone is on Sunday afternoon, they are probably watching it (Muay Thai) on TV.” Thais are crazy about Muay Thai and it shows.
Muay Thai is the national sport of Thailand and Lumpini Stadium is their Madison Square Garden.
This was my last day in Bangkok and after strolling all day in the weekend Chatuchak market, watching a live Muay Thai event at the famous Lumpini Park while sipping on lukewarm Chang beer seemed like the perfect thing to do.
A crumbled up piece of paper,that was now lying on the ground, was handed to me when I bought the ticket and had a list of 10 bouts that would be taking place that night. I had tried my best to read all the long Thai names but it was too difficult.
The “VIP” Seats were all filled with foreigners like me, all trying to get as close as possible to the action in the ring. I spotted many of them watching the fights through their camera lenses, waiting for that perfect moment..that perfect picture where a fighter gets punched and a tooth flies out..
There were four judges, sitting in different sides of the ring and they changed after every fight. After five rounds, they would each hand in a small piece of paper to the referee, who will raise the hand of the winner. Celebrations will start among his supporters, in the stands and in his corner which mainly consisted of his coach, a few support staff, and maybe a couple of his family members. The other fighter would slowly make his way back to the locker room followed by his coach.
The night started with a fight between a couple of really young teenage kids. Do not get me wrong, this is no juvenile school fight. Some of the best fights involves these young fighters because they are trying to make a name for themselves in this sport. They are professionals and they dream to be big names someday, just like we wanted to be cricketers or rockstars when we were young.
Before every bout, the fighters did a small dance to pay tribute to their Gods and ancestors followed by an action which would have signify who his teacher was and about his fighting style. There is a separate stand in the arena where a group would be playing the traditional Thai music which motivated the fighters to fight harder. The music is an integral part of Muay Thai and it creates an amazing atmosphere in the arena.
(Sometimes it is so good that it motivates me to fight the guy sitting next to me!)
The fights went on, and we saw knockouts, twisted limbs, busted heads. People went crazy when the fighters landed a hay maker. Many of the fighters had their parents in their corner. Looking at them, you can at times think that they are the ones getting beaten up. I saw one of the mothers cry when her kid started bleeding. I cannot imagine how hard it must be for them to watch their kids fight.
The people in the stands, on the other hand, were quite a contrast. They, including me, wanted to see action. Some of them were placing bets and shouting at the same time. I do not know exactly how the betting process work, because people were betting all through the fight, but it was exciting.
I ordered another beer and decided to follow one of the fighters to the locker room. He did not smile or talk. His coach was still shouting something in his ears, while he sat on a wooden platform and took off his head band.The room smelled of sweat, blood and tears. I stood at the door wondering if I should ask for their permission before entering. I heard a loud cheer from the crowd outside. Another fight had already started.
Finally gathering up some courage, I approached them hesitantly with my camera. There was no one else in the room, so I knew I had to ask the coach to take my picture with the fighter. Tough task, because he seemed mad.
“Hi. Do you mind taking a picture with me?” I asked the fighter, who looked up at me and then to his coach.
Now the coach was looking at me. Clearly none of them understood English. I showed them the camera and pointed towards the fighter. They kept looking blankly at me.
“Picture..Photo!” I said a little loudly this time, so that they could hear me over all the noise.
Finally, the coach smiled and said something to the fighter, who also smiled. The coach took the camera and took a picture. The fighter, who had seemed like a vicious creature till then was suddenly just another teenage kid. He asked if he could see the photo and smiled ear to ear watching it.
I wanted to ask him why the coach was shouting at him. He had won the fight. God knows what he did to him when he lost. But I decided not to. I knew they had more important things to do and that my beer was getting warmer by the minute. So, I shook their hands and said my goodbyes, content that I could atleast give them something to smile about.
The fighters and the coaches seemed to have a very close relationship. During the rounds, the coach would shout directions at his fighter and literally, you could see nerves and veins in their neck and head throbbing while they do so. Clearly, they cared a lot about how their fighters did in the ring. During the break between the rounds, fighters turned to their coaches for advice. I saw the coaches wipe off the sweat and blood from their faces. Fighting at Lumpini is a big deal and they must have worked really hard to get their fighters here. It was no “You give me money and I’ll teach you a few tricks” kind of deal. They actually stood behind their fighters. They cared.
At around 9 PM, the main event started and clearly looking at peoples faces, it was what they were waiting for. It was between two very well groomed and experienced fighters and they put up a great show. They knocked each other down and landed kicks and punches perfectly. The crowd went mad. I could see the other foreigners look back thinking a riot had started.The music was louder as if competing with the fans. I do not know how the judges were still focusing on the fight. But they were. They were not even blinking. You could feel the tension, nervousness and excitement in the arena.
And then in the last round, it happened. A knock out.
You know how they show it in the movies. Everything goes silent and slow. All you hear is the strange beeping sound as one of the fighters hit the mat. And then, after a moment or two, you hear the spectators cry out in pain and delight, almost blowing off the roof of the arena.
It happened exactly like that. An ear blasting roar from the crowd as the fighter tried his best to get up. He could not. The hand of the winner was raised and I could see how much the win meant to him. He hugged the people around him and shook his opponents hand.
It was a Rocky moment and one that I will not forget anytime soon.
I think I heard him cry out for his wife…
Or maybe it was my imagination running wild.
Thanks for another awesome night, Bangkok…